The Road to Release

I wrote this before Hurricane Earl had its way with Caves Branch. I’ll write more about that experience soon, but first I want to catch up on my account of this trip.

After almost 10 weeks at Tamandua Refuge, Abe (pronounced “Abby”), the resident young tamandua who had been attacked by dogs, is almost ready for release. (Tamanduas are a genus of anteaters; Abe is a Northern Tamanudua.)

Abe had a pin put in to fix her paw.

Ella monitors her behavior with great patience and attention to detail. Abe is currently in the large indoor enclosure; she will skip the final outdoor enclosure and go right to the wild, because she already possesses the requisite wild instinct.

Abe’s surgery, photo by Maritza Navarro

Abe before she was transferred to the current enclosure, munching her termite nest.

Ella holding Abe, photo by Maritza Navarro


This current enclosure is like a tamandua jungle gym: ropes and branches on which she can climb, hang upside down, and twist, reach, and contort herself as she likes, especially for food.

Abe’s current enclosure, the “jungle gym.” Safe climbing opportunities abound.

This morning I observed her eating her breakfast of avocado and termites from the mound (she was also offered a seedy bright magenta fruit called pitaya, but she only destroyed it with her giant claws, as if to say, “I don’t even want to look at this”). She nibbled the avocado and got it all over the tip of her long nose as she made lip-smacking, snuffle-like sounds. Then she moved on and leaned into the termite mound, which is presented in a plastic bin. She flicked her long, thin tongue into the termite nest, which looks like a hard, rocky sponge but is actually made of termite spit and poop.

These are the termites we gathered from the citrus grove the morning after I arrived. Fortunately they’re to Abe’s liking (she’s picky; they all are).

Abe was all worked up in the enclosure for awhile, possibly trying to engage Ella in play. She also up-ended her water bowl and eventually went back into her “bin” to methodically clean herself and have another long snooze. Tamanduas will literally climb the walls (and doors). They’ll find or make a tiny hole and make a break for it. The climbing instinct, and the eventual call of the wild, is that strong. She’s not only ready to bloom, she’s ready to bust out. So Ella has to balance caring for her with dehabituating her to human contact (Abe knows Ella’s smell but no one else’s, so I was a distraction and kept a safe distance).

This “jungle bin” is meant to replicate the choices she will have in the wild, including fermented fruit.

Previous gobbling.


After our human breakfast (no avocado for us), Ella and I walked in the botanical garden that Ella manages with a staff of six (so far I have met Marvin, David, Don Luis, and Junior).

The garden is a marvel. Ella is a botanist and has the largest botanical collection in Belize, including a species she discovered.

Each specimen is painstakingly marked with a color-coded ribbon or metal tags indicating if they are in bloom, about to bloom, need to be send to another botanic collection site, need to be photographed and recorded, or have been collected on an expedition.

This garden map shows the same care and precision that guides Ella’s tamandua rehabilitation work.

The garden staff examine the specimens every day. Soon after this photo was taken, Ella pointed out to David one specimen about to bloom and said, “It will be spectacular.”

Tonight the staff has secured all of the fragile specimens in anticipation of the hurricane headed our way (the rest of the lodge is also prepared, of course). Abe doesn’t seem to notice, though she did eat an especially large breakfast. Ella theorizes that she was filling her belly before the storm, as she would do in the wild.

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